The United States is setting up an Office of Climate Change and Health Equity to get at the health impacts of the climate emergency and the disproportionate toll on poor communities, the Biden administration announced earlier this week.
Programs and analyses that connect climate and health are not new—Canada, for example, first opened its Climate Change and Health Office in 2001, and the prestigious medical journal The Lancet first connected the dots between the two areas in 2009. But this week, the Wall Street Journal reliably chimed in with a prediction that the initiative “is likely to face pushback” from the industry that delivers privatized health care in the United States.
The office, which will report to Health Secretary Xavier Becerra and the assistant secretary of health, “will be the first (U.S.) federal program aimed specifically at understanding how planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels also affect human health,” the New York Times reports. Its US$3-million budget has yet to be approved by Congress.
The broad mandate of the new office was outlined in one of the flurry of executive orders President Joe Biden signed in the days after he took office in January. “It’s an area that medical experts have urged the government to take more seriously, and public health leaders said the new office was long overdue,” the Times writes. “In particular, experts said, more needs to be done to understand how extreme weather affects older people as well as communities of colour, where families are more likely to live in areas hardest hit by disasters.”
“The health of the American people is falling through the cracks because there hasn’t been a targeted focus on climate risk,” said Aaron Bernstein, interim director of the Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “This is the opportunity to plug that hole.”
“There’s a saying that if white people catch a cold, Black people catch pneumonia,” added National League of Nursing CEO Beverly Malone. “Health equity has a lot to do with where you live, and we have understood the linkage.”